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Literature

16 May 2019
At a 1969 celebration of the Transcontinental Railroad, 2,000 miles of track that linked the Central Pacific Railroad to the Eastern rail network, Transportation Secretary John Volpe crowed: “Who else but Americans could drill tunnels in mountains 30 feet deep in snow?” Volpe was apparently unaware that the Chinese workers who actually did the drilling were barred from obtaining U.S. citizenship. A new book from Stanford University historian Gordon Chang confronts this amnesia. Ghosts of Gold Mountain seeks to give long-overdue acknowledgement to the 20,000 Chinese laborers who built the railroad’s Western section. Thousands died crossing the Sierra Nevada, and the railroad companies paid the Chinese workers far less than their white counterparts. Released earlier this month, days before the 150th anniversary of the railroad’s completion—which occurred May 10, 1869—the book is the most comprehensive account to date of the lives of the Chinese workers who built the railroad. An…
08 May 2019
A big tree can seem monolithic and solitary—several armspans of girth, a towering crown. Trees, though, are often part of a community. Through a network of roots and fungal threads, they can warn each other of danger and even feed a lopped stump. They nourish and house countless creatures, which nourish them in turn. Trees, in other words, embody the power of relationships to sustain life. And forming a relationship with trees, two books by first-time authors suggest, can lead people to help do the same on a grand scale—from stumping on behalf of old-growth temperate rainforests, to fighting climate change. Journalist Harley Rustad centers his exploration of this theme on an unlikely catalyst: a single logger meeting a single Douglas fir. Dennis Cronin was marking a grove for harvest in 2011 when he came upon the giant tree—217 feet tall. On impulse, he wrapped it with a ribbon that…
07 Mar 2019
For Robert Leonard Reid, protecting wilderness is a literary act. The Carson City, Nev.-based writer has spent 40 years roving Western landscapes in an effort to preserve them, primarily through his words. Reid’s latest work, Because It Is So Beautiful: Unraveling the Mystique of the American West, displays an almost claustral curiosity: An exploratory spirit envelops and propels him across the Arctic, the Sierras, the Rockies, the sacred spaces of Native America and all the toeholds and crags in between, from the High Plains of eastern New Mexico to the Bugaboos in British Columbia. Reid writes with the flair of daredevil naturalist Craig Childs and the philosophical quotient of nature essayist Edward Hoagland. The book functions like an atlas; each essay is a wayfinding tool, navigating the reader toward “the mystique of the American West”—something that, despite the book’s subtitle, he seeks not to unravel, but preserve: “A journey into…
31 Jan 2019
The Basque Country of northern Spain and southern France is a land of misty coastlines and damp mountains—green and soft. Yet in the 19th and 20th centuries, many Basques immigrated to some of the driest regions of the United States—places like Nevada, eastern Oregon and Idaho. One Basque shepherd recalled his first experiences after arriving in Nevada: “I wasn’t much more than 16 years old, you know. And they sent me into the desert with a dog and 3,000 sheep. … Though Basques are used to being alone, these deserts were something else.” A century later, a family from the Spanish Basque Country relocated to the urban wilds of Reno. Bernardo Atxaga’s Nevada Days once again raises the question: How does someone who grew up in a verdant European countryside respond, mentally and physically, to a bone-dry land with blazing horizons? In the case of Atxaga, one of the Basque…
27 Dec 2018
“In the past, people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable. It is just this common basis of agreement, with its implication that human beings are all one species of animal, that totalitarianism destroys.” —George Orwell “Who cares whether they laugh at us or insult us, treating us as fools or criminals? The point is that they talk about us and constantly think about us.” —Adolf Hitler On the Friday after Thanksgiving, the federal government released the second volume of its Fourth National Climate Assessment, warning that global warming increasingly threatens our nation’s environment, our health and our prosperity. When asked the following Monday to comment on the assessment, the product of 13 government agencies and 300 scientists, President…
14 Dec 2018
It’s hard to hide from the news these days, even in the pages of a book. Buffalo Cactus, a collection of 21 recent stories with Western settings, delves into hot-button issues such as immigration, addiction and, inadvertently, the #MeToo movement: It features one story by disgraced author Ron Carlson, who resigned from UC Irvine in August 2018 (five months after Buffalo Cactus was published), following allegations of sexual misconduct. Aside from the Carlson story, which the reader can easily ignore, Buffalo Cactus offers a chance to move past the stark headlines and discover the nuanced human stories that underlie them. Alberto Álvaro Ríos’ “Ten Seconds in Two Lives” opens the collection with the affecting, fable-like tale of Julio and Marta, two legal immigrants from Mexico—young, in love and struggling financially as they start out their new lives together. One day, Julio unwittingly becomes involved in a drug deal, earning $200.…
08 Nov 2018
About two-thirds of the way into Carys Davies’ folkloric novel West, the widowed farmer John Cyrus Bellman recalls a riverboat encounter with a Dutch land agent and the agent’s wife. The unpolished farmer offered them a pithy description of his westward journey: “I am seeking a creature entirely unknown, an animal incognitum.” That declaration is a worthy summary of Davies’ thin novel, which follows Bellman in search of “gigantic monsters” west of the Mississippi River during the early 19th century. Inspired by a newspaper clipping about “monstrous bones” and “prodigious tusks” unearthed in Kentucky—likely in what is now Big Bone Lick State Park—West follows Bellman as he turns his back on his Pennsylvania farm, leaving his daughter, Bess, in the care of his sister. The novel alternates between Bellman’s westward journey and Bess’ lonely life at home, where, like her father before her, she finds solace in reading about faraway…
27 Sep 2018
During one of his many visits to the Northwest Territories, Barry Lopez, author of Arctic Dreams, was asked by a native elder how long he intended to stay. Before Lopez could respond, the elder, who’d met a journalist or two in his day, grinned and answered his own question. “One day: newspaper story. Two days: magazine story. Five days: book.” The point was a shrewd one: There is a timeworn tradition of writers traveling to the Canadian Arctic and Alaska to marvel at the land—at its nightless summers, its eccentric inhabitants, its fearsome bears. Jack London spent less than a year in the Klondike. John McPhee based Coming Into the Country on four trips from his home in New Jersey. The fascination of the North stems, in part, from the fact that it’s a damn hard place to visit, much less live in; little wonder that much of its literature…
20 Sep 2018
On Oct. 2, The Greatest Love Story Ever Told: An Oral History, a book by Hollywood comedy couple Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman, is being released—and three days later, the hilarious duo will kick off the second season of the Palm Springs Speaks series. The speakers’ series is a joint effort by the Palm Springs Cultural Center and the Friends of the Palm Springs Library. Ron Willison, the president of the Palm Springs Library Board of Trustees, helped organize the series—which is bringing some huge names to the valley in the coming months. “We are trying to bring in interesting speakers,” he said. “We want to promote literacy, and we add different speakers for each year to make it interesting. Last year, we had Deepak Chopra talk about wellness. Dan Savage talked about LBGT issues, and Al Gore (was here) in association with the (Palm Springs International) Film Festival. “This…
06 Sep 2018
Those of us who are ravenous readers of books set in the American West are used to stories of living life on the edge, off the grid, out of the box. But two new memoirs, both debuts, take isolation and fortitude to a delightful, and at times terrifying, extreme. Both are complex reflections by maverick women directing an honest gaze at their chosen lifestyle and all that it entails. Rough Beauty starts with great loss: Karen Auvinen escapes the wintry isolation of her Colorado cabin for a day only to return to what looks like a “voluminous orange cloth … forming scarlet and orange ripples that flicked and snapped.” Everything she owns is burned, save her truck. She raises a middle finger to her 40th year and the charred remains of a life, and what follows is a journey of grief, attempts at coping, and a deeper retreat into isolation.…

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